Can Rand Paul Save the Republican Party?

Update, December 2015: Rand Paul’s Campaign Collapse Proved Libertarianism is Antithetical With Conservatism, by Tom Mullen.

I posted this originally in March, 2013. The odds against Rand Paul’s success have lengthened, in my view, since then, what with Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker dividing the base Paul would appeal to, while Jeb Bush corners the Republican establishment. In addition, Paul has caused problems for himself by, first declaring himself strongly opposed to “nation-building” and foreign aid, but then making exceptions in the Middle East, where ISIS and Iran threaten, and offering unquestioning aid to Israel. His glib statements against the “surveillance state” will not sit well with Republicans who support the (popular with Republicans) Patriot Act. He initially called for liberalized immigration, an end to the drug war and decriminalization of marijuana — popular positions with young and libertarian voters, but seems to have backed away from those positions. He’s also now more pro-life than pro-choice on abortion. See Rand Paul, Caught in the Middle. 

As the American economy expands and the deficit shrinks to controllable levels — less than three percent of GDP — Paul’s free market fundamentalism and obsession with federal debt will have less appeal. He won’t say persuasively what programs he will eliminate that will dramatically cut federal debt.

His father polled twenty percent in several Republican primaries in 2012. While that might be Rand Paul’s base, his mushy compromises might disillusion libertarians and he’ll initially have to prove his ownership of the 20 percent base, despite vigorous appeals for it from other candidates. It’s hard to see how he gets to a majority of the primary vote in any state.

Paul’s other problem is that he’s up for re-election in Kentucky in 2016. He has shown little interest in the Senate as a place to legislate, only as a stepping stone. If he chooses not to run for re-election, his whole “movement” could die a quick death if he loses the presidential nomination. He would be left without a position or base to run from, and his own enterprise could be a flash in the pan, rather like that of former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has inherited his father Ron’s impressive Internet organizing and fundraising network. He has nothing to lose by launching — early — a campaign for president in 2016. At the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), he won the straw poll of nearly 3,000 attendees, with 25 percent of the vote, besting Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). Not too surprising since Paul’s father, Ron, won the CPAC straw polls in 2010 and 2011. It will be interesting to watch how fast the Rand Paul 2016 Facebook page grows — it’s now at 807,454 “likes,” compared to 454,823 “likes” for Marco Rubio’s Facebook page. (By March 2015, he had 1.8 million Facebook likes, compared to just 722,000 for Rubio, and 1.2 million “likes” for Ted Cruz.) So, Paul is still winning the Facebook primary.

If nothing else, expressing interest early makes Paul the de facto leader of the libertarian and Tea Party wings of the Republican Party. In a crowded field, he’d have a good chance of winning the early Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, making him a strong contender, Guardian blogger Harry Enten observes.

Paul won plaudits even from liberals for his 13-hour filibuster against President Obama’s domestic drone policy, and for his advocacy of significant cuts in defense spending.

Traditional hawks like the editorialists for The Wall Street Journal, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have mocked Paul for showboating. Paul’s filibuster was a “stunt” to “fire up impressionable libertarian kids in their college dorms,” McCain charged. “We’ve done, I think, a disservice to a lot of Americans by making them believe that somehow they’re in danger from their government. They’re not,” he said. “But we are in danger from a dedicated … enemy that is hell bent on our destruction.”

To become a majority party again, the Republicans will have to unite anti-government Tea Party libertarians, who detested the 2008 government bailouts of banks, and Wall Street, which gladly accepted the bailouts. The party will have to decide whether to take a consistent, principled free market approach or whether it simply favors, as the Bush administration demonstrated, huge deficit spending, crony capitalism, “socialism for the rich and brutal capitalism for the poor.”

It will also have to unite the internationalists and neo-cons, who strongly favored the Iraq war and want to hike defense spending before cutting the deficit, with the neo-isolationists, like Paul, who are disillusioned with aggressive American action in Iraq and Afghanistan and prefer to slash defense spending.

Whether the Republican Party can bring these contradictory factions together will be one of the great political questions of 2016. At this stage it seems a libertarian like Paul could engender passion among a core group of ideologues and do well in certain primary and caucus states. But it’s doubtful he could garner a majority of Republican primary votes without severely compromising his principals. He opposes the income tax, and would eliminate Medicaid.  He has taken domestic positions in favor of marijuana legalization, in opposition to civil rights — opposing the Violence Against Women Act and going so far as to say business owners have a right to refuse service to customers on the basis of race. “Paul’s libertarian streak ends on same-sex marriage and abortion. Paul is against both. Americans are for both,” Enten points out.

I’ve suggested before that both the Tea Party Movement on the right and the Occupy Wall Street movement on the left originate from the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the financial crash and bailouts of 2008/9, and loss of confidence in the financial elites and the political establishment. They might unite around an agenda of breaking up the big banks, ending corporate welfare, ending the war on drugs, restricting both corporate and government surveillance, opposing Internet censorship, demanding more transparency and fairness in the financial system. That’s a good agenda for the next few years.

If Paul could help enact it and unify libertarian impulses on both the right and left — he might have a chance to actually win as either a Republican nominee or as a third party candidate in a general election. He’d probably have to drop his opposition to gay marriage and abortion, positions inconsistent with libertarianism.

In an insightful article, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner point to ways the Republican Party can modernize, “How to Save the Republican Party.”

Both Paul and Rubio are up for re-election in 2016, so they both could be forced to decide early whether to run for re-election or run for president. It’s a gamble, as Senator John Edwards (D-NC) discovered when he started grooming for a presidential run just two years after winning his Senate seat, and announced he would not seek re-election 16 months before his seat was up in 2004. Constituents back home resented his decision, thinking he never really intended to serve them, but only his own ambitions. He never secured his base in North Carolina, and his popularity in the state waned. Years on the road also took a psychological toll. Eventually, his promising career — and his marriage — were completely destroyed.

Edwards provides a cautionary tale for both Paul and Rubio.


John Hayes said…

Very informative. The effort you obviously put into your posts shows

Ron said…

Rubio is more mainstream than Paul…or appears so. But, barring a miracle, I suspect the GOP in its current guise is going the way of the Whigs.

Buie Knife said…

Rubio didn’t win a majority of the vote in his Senate race in 2010 (it was a three person race). He hasn’t accomplished the first rule of politics — secure your base in your home state. He hasn’t established a substantive record. I don’t think he’ll run for president in 2016, but instead run for re-election. If he runs for president, he runs the risk of becoming another John Edwards — all show, not enough substance.

The Republicans aren’t likely to go the way of the Whigs. America’s two-party system is very well-established, and it’s very difficult for another party to get on the ballot. The Republicans would be very shrewd to incorporate the passion of the libertarians. It might not be enough to win the next presidential election. It may take them a few more election cycles to win the presidency, but history suggests they will eventually come back.

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